Western North Carolina has always attracted people who could afford to get away from the heat and spend the summer in the mountains. Once the railroad reached Asheville, North Carolina, in 1880, many distinguished people settled here and left their mark.
Perhaps the most famous is George Vanderbilt, who built Biltmore Estate, still the most popular tourist attraction in the area. But another was Dr. Chase Ambler, who came to Asheville in the 1890s to work with pulmonary patients. Away from his medical practice, the doctor influenced the direction of the eventual national park today known as "the Smokies" and the national forests in the Southern Appalachians.
While Mr. Vanderbilt's presence is reflected in downtown Asheville, you need to take a hike into the surrounding mountains to see one of the footprints left behind by Dr. Ambler. Head down the Mountains-to-Sea Trail from Bull Gap on the Blue Ridge Parkway and you'll eventually come upon the remains of the Ambler summer home, Rattlesnake Lodge.
Though little more than a collection of foundations in various stages of collapse today, the lodge was a bustling compound a century ago.
Dr. Ambler had the house built in 1903, and it quickly became a gathering place for family and friends. His wife and children went up to their summer home as soon as school let out and Dr. Ambler came on weekends and sometimes Wednesdays. Remember when doctors took Wednesdays off?
In his pamphlet on Rattlesnake Lodge, A. Chase Ambler Jr., grandson of the patriarch, reminisced about the servants needed to run the house, including a cook and nanny.
During the first three years that the family summered here, 41 rattlesnakes were killed on the property, giving the name to the site. Locals throughout the area knew that Dr. Ambler would pay five dollars for any rattler brought to him. Five dollars in those days was about equivalent to week's wages, so he got a lot of snakes, whether or not they were caught on the lodge property.
Dr. Ambler owned land from Bull Gap to Lane Pinnacle and supervised the building of a horse trail from his property to Mt. Mitchell, starting in 1912. The trail was supposed to be part of the Crest of the Blue Ridge Highway, a precursor to the Blue Ridge Parkway, but the road never got very far. Much of Ambler's trail became part of the Mountains-to-Sea. At the center of the site, a display board, put up by Carolina Mountain Club, shows a map, pictures and descriptions of the old lodge and outbuildings.
But Dr. Ambler was involved in more than just his own patch of land. He's considered one of the first advocates for establishing a national park in the Southern Appalachians. In 1899, he helped form the Appalachian National Park Association, though the doctor's future advocacy work veered toward forest conservation. He was a supporter of the Weeks Act of 1911 that gave Congress the right to buy land to protect the headwaters of navigable streams. This power created the major national forests in the East.
Today there's little left of Rattlesnake Lodge to appreciate that legacy. The trail to the lodge (3 miles, 600 feet ascent, round-trip) switchbacks up, giving you winter views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At one point, where the side of the trail seems most worn out, you'll enjoy unobstructed view of the mountain range.
As you get close to the remains of Rattlesnake Lodge, which burned to the ground a few years after the family sold it in 1920, possibly due to a lightning strike, the trail becomes smooth and flat and the remains of a life long gone come into sight. The first stone enclosure you'll pass marks the barn. The second, a small circle of stones, was the swimming pool.
The trail meanders on by the lodge site, a large flat area, stabilized by massive stonework. From the porch of the main house, guests could look down the mountainside into the Swannanoa River basin.
Seven springs are supposed to be on the property. Originally the springhouse was fully enclosed and kept milk and other foodstuff cool. The remains of the springhouse now have a fallen tree across the top and make for great climbing. Unmaintained trails go every which way to stone piles and one to a flat area that must have been the tennis courts.
From the springhouse, continue left on a steep blue-blazed trail for 0.2 mile to find the main reservoir. This large stone enclosure has piping, still sticking out from the wall. But where did the water go? Go back down the blue trail and follow the MST to see another reservoir. There was a series of enclosures to bring water to where it was needed on the property.
Most visitors turn around here. If you continue the climb, you'll get to Lane Pinnacle where you can look down on Beetree Reservoir, Asheville's water supply. The trail runs through an open Civilian Conservation Corps shelter which has been refurbished. A short side trail goes to Craggy Gardens which explodes with color in mid-June. Here, rhododendron, mountain laurel, flaming azaleas in bloom are packed almost on top of each other.
Today, Dr. Ambler is remembered in two concrete ways. In Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Mt. Ambler is a knob on the Appalachian Trail on the way to Charlies Bunion. The Curtis Creek tract, the first piece of land bought for Pisgah National Forest, has a large sign dedicating the land to Dr. Chase Ambler of Asheville.
Dr. Ambler must have been indefatigable. He was also chair of the committee which, in 1920, started the Southern Chapter of the Appalachian Mountain Club. Today, AMC can be thought of as the East Coast Sierra Club. The club, established in 1876 in Boston, had several thousand members. But the Southern Chapter only lasted three years. Most of the $8 dues were being sent to build trails in the Northeast. The Southern members thought that was unfair, and reincorporated as Carolina Mountain Club. Dr. Ambler was one of the incorporating members.
The start of the hike is on Ox Creek Road off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Take the Blue Ridge Parkway to MP 375.2 at Bull Gap. Turn left at the brown Weaverville/Vance Birthplace sign. After 0.2 mile, at the T, turn right on Ox Creek Road. Drive 0.7 mile to the trailhead, second parking area on the right. Take the short access trail and turn left on the MST. It's 1.5 miles (one way) to the Rattlesnake Lodge site.
When the Parkway reopens, you may want to walk to Craggy Gardens. Place another car at the picnic area. Drive to MP 367.7 and turn in to the Craggy Garden picnic area. Continue to the turn-around point and park. The MST access starts at the far end of the parking area, opposite the restrooms. The hike to Craggy Gardens and the CCC shelter is 0.6 mile further on the MST. It's 8.3 miles from Ox Creek Road to Craggy Gardens and the CCC shelter.